The Rise of the US is a Lesson for China

The rise of new powers usually follows a massive global or economic shock engulfing a certain region or the world as a whole.

China's ascendance in the last several decades in the economic and military realms brings to mind various theories that a definitive change in the balance of power is or will be taking place in the near future.

In fact, China has often been compared to pre-World War I Germany. The latter had an ambition to attain a dominant position in eastern Europe, including large portions of the Russian Empire. The Germans were expanding their economic reach to the Middle East and, most importantly, it was not long before they came to pose a serious challenge to Great Britain's naval dominance.

China, like Germany a century ago, also aspires to build a larger military navy and increase its economic potential abroad. However, rather than comparing China to Germany, which was defeated in both world wars, it would be in some sense expedient to compare the modern China to its current geopolitical competitor, the United States of late 19th-early 20th century.

There are many similarities between the two. China nowadays in some ways is facing a new world and new opportunities which had been closed to her for centuries. Surrounded by an arc of almost impregnable geographic barriers, China’s heartland produced enough to sustain a self-sufficient economy. The 19th century amounted to a national catastrophe as European powers assailed China for economic gains, while in the early 20th century, Japan’s hegemony undermined any Chinese attempts to revive the state.

Thus, China has never been a global power and does not clearly see what kind of world order it wants to build. Everything about modern Chinese foreign policy moves shows the country is still developing its "world order ideas".

Like the US in the early 20th century, China nowadays feels that it has to assume a more powerful internationalist stance as her economic appetite makes it inexpedient to rely on the benevolence of other powers. At the same time, again like the US before, China is also reluctant as it fears that a more “global China” could ignite suspicions around the world of nascent Chinese dominance.

China today portrays her actions as a policy which benefits not only her, but the entire world. At the same time, China sees that there is a certain necessity to increase her military potential both at sea and on land.

The US too, 100 years ago, cast her policies as peaceful and non-interventionist in other countries’ internal affairs. However, it was the young United States which had a “manifest destiny” to expand its influence into North America and the waters around the continent.

Like modern China, the US a hundred years ago did not openly aspire, nor really plan, to acquire global dominance. The then-US statesmen only gradually started to see that the country needed to take a more active geopolitical role by influencing political developments in Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Modern China also resembles the younger US as they both have a view that the world can benefit from them economically and through the way they plan to (re-) create the world order.

How the US was catapulted from a domination over North America in the early 20th century to global pre-eminence after 1945 serves as a good explanatory case on the rise and fall of great powers. China could learn a lot from the American rise, a story of the gradual build-up of military and economic power coupled with attractive cultural features.

The rise of new powers does not happen quickly: it takes decades of meticulous work. That could explain why China's comparison with Germany of the early 20th century is a flawed one. Kaisers' Germany was powerful, but its human and economic potential could not match that of the allied powers.

China, on the contrary, possesses a large population as well as enough economic potential to try to challenge the existing balance of power.

Though similarities exist, this does not lead to a clear-cut conclusion that, like the US' rise to global pre-eminence, China will do the same.

The US began to dominate the oceans and parts of Eurasia only after its major geopolitical contenders in Europe fought two deadly wars and destroyed the European world order. The US also acted from a safe geographic position: oceans essentially precluded the then powers from reaching North America.

China's geographic position, on the other hand, is a continental one, surrounded from the east by the US-led Asian countries nestled on a chain of islands.

That said, historical comparisons show that the rise of new powers is always followed by conflicts, and often one conflict alone does not suffice to alter the balance of power. Carthage lost its power after two long wars with Rome, and Europe lost its grandeur after two world conflicts. Perhaps the same will go for China’s rise too, as it has yet to be seen that a dominant state willingly gives up its position.

By Emil Avdaliani

Image source: REUTERS/Tony Gentile

24 September 2018 19:27